JTF (just the facts): Published by El Ministerio Ediciones (self-published, here) and Hormigón Armado. Softcover, 28 pages, with 33 color photographs/drawings. Includes a text by the artist (in Spanish/English). In an edition of 6000 copies. Designed by Studio Bruster. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Héroes del Brillo is the most recent project by the Uruguayan photographer Federico Estol. The title of his zine translates from Spanish as “shine heroes,” and the photobook brings attention to one of Bolivia’s most undesirable professions – shoe shiners, or lustrabotas as they are known locally.
Every day, about three thousand shoe shiners go out into the streets of Bolivia’s main city, La Paz, in search of customers. Long running victims of discrimination, in recent years they have turned into something of a social phenomenon in the country. No one wants to admit to working as a shoe shiner, as it is a job that carries a badge of shame in the capital – shoe shiners feel they are looked down upon, often blamed for thefts on the streets. But for many, this is the only work they can find, so most shoe shiners hide their faces behind a balaclava or a mask. No one knows that they work as shoe shiners, not even their own families and friends.
Estol spent the past three years collaborating with about sixty shoe shiners. They are associated with the organization Hormigón Armado (which literally means “reinforced concrete”, but is also a play on words). The organization provides support services to its members and runs a newspaper – the copies are handed out to shoe shiners to sell, and they keep the money. To participate in this project, the workers have to attend personal development and job opportunity workshops (with subjects ranging from human rights, domestic violence, and education to first aid and sports).
Héroes del Brillo is a collaborative project. The zine opens with a full spread image showing a dense area of residential buildings high up on one of La Paz’s many steep hills, a stream of sunlight reflecting from one of the windows. It is followed by a portrait of a person wearing a ski mask, shot against the bright blue sky, and it seems like there is a mirror in the eye opening of the mask, reflecting the sunlight. The motif of reflected light appears throughout the publication, playing with the idea of shining.
Estol worked together with the community of shoe shiners to plan the scenes, also incorporating illustrations and collages, presenting the shoe shiners as superheroes with secret powers – if there are shoes that have to be polished, lustrabotas will come to the rescue. The resulting photographs are somewhat theatrical, combining documentary reality with a splash of playful surrealism. The images aim to bring attention to the community but also to portray the profession in a more positive light. Rather than focusing on negative stereotypes, Estol builds a bright and upbeat narrative. One of the photographs shows a group of lustrabotas standing in a circle on the outskirts of the city, with the facades of the buildings behind them covered with graffiti; they carry shoe shine tool boxes, and also hold mirrors reflecting light. Their masks create a strong visual identity, uniting them as one positive force.
Another spread shows two arms in red sweaters crossing as they hold brushes; it is paired with an image of ritual performed over a figure of a lustrabota, in hopes for a good working day. Many of the images are active and fun, with shoe shiners running, jumping, and pointing, their superpowers at work. The last photograph shows a shoe shiner from the back as he takes off his mask. He looks right at the dense landscape of the city, his work done for the day. The image symbolizes the hope that one day the lustrabotas will be able to throw away their masks, and the profession will have a more positive perception in society.
Héroes del Brillo is a small and straightforward project, yet it is quite remarkable. It exists as an inspired reaction to everyday social inequality and discrimination. Estol asks us to look closer at this community, whose lives might otherwise go unnoticed. It reflects the artist’s demand to express support and to take a stand, making Héroes del Brillo a well-conceived contemporary protest book.
Collector’s POV: Federico Estol does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).
Good find; does that rare thing, looks at a social issue via the prism of a rich imagination, and doesn’t leave you feeling brow-beaten.